"House of the Dragon" introduces the Lannisters before they had game

Another familiar house joins the dragon pit, and they'll make you wonder where their descendants found their fangs

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published September 5, 2022 12:00PM (EDT)

Jefferson Hall as Jason Lannister in "House of the Dragon" (Photo Courtesy of HBO)
Jefferson Hall as Jason Lannister in "House of the Dragon" (Photo Courtesy of HBO)

The following contains minor spoilers for "House of the Dragon" Episode 3, "Second of His Name."

In this country, you've got to make the money first. Then when you get the money, you get the power. Then when you get the power, then you get the women.

What Tony Montana knows to be true also prevails in Targaryen-ruled Westeros, as the latest installment of "House of the Dragon" shows us. In this episode, we meet Lord Jason Lannister, the idiot ancestor of Tywin, Tyrion, Jaime and Cersei. Whatever intellect that generation inherited did not come from this not-so-great-great-great . . . great . . . whatever, which Jason proves when he steps up to Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen (Milly Alcock) during the hunt arranged to honor her half-brother Aegon's second birthday.

First Jason creates a conversational opener with some real "swipe left" material. "I wonder, Princess," he says, "was your own second name day as grand as this?"

"I honestly don't recall, and neither will Aegon," she flatly, frosty replies in a tone that leaves the obvious unsaid: "Two-year-olds have the long-term memory of raw hamburger, you twit."

While the "Game of Thrones" prequel establishes the Targaryens' varied personalities and temperaments before Mad King Aerys poisoned their reputation for all time, not much has been mentioned about the other main houses we knew from the first show.

Many were around back then, but not all. Representatives from House Baratheon were knocked off their horses in the premiere's tourney. Later in the same episode, Lord Rickard Stark pops in to grimly pledge his fealty to Rhaenyra when her father Viserys (Paddy Considine) names her as his heir.

But the third episode, "Second of His Name," turns a spotlight on proto-Lannisters Jason and his twin brother Ser Tyland (both played by Jefferson Hall) to show us how far the family's reputation rose during the two centuries between them and Tywin's shrewder brood.

Tywin (as portrayed by Charles Dance) is a man who demands his family knows the history of the realm forwards and backward, who is wise in the way of politics, and eschews sentimentality. He probably read about Jason – he's the Lord of Casterly Rock, after all – but it's unlikely he'd bear knowing that Tyland and his twin made the Lannister family motto, "Hear Me Roar!" sound like a joke.

At Aegon's name day hunt, Jason presents himself as the type of peacocking tool every woman has encountered at some point, whether in a bar, on a bus, in an ambulance, or on a church pew – anywhere, really – who believes it's his divine duty to irritate them.

Jason Lannister has the money, see. But at this point in history, his line is short on power.

Overcompensating, tacky boob that he is, Jason believes that all it takes to win a woman's heart is to cover himself in lions and ply her with "the finest honeyed wine you'll ever taste – made in Lannisport, of course," along with tall tales about the hee-yooge-ness of the highest tower at his stronghold.

"I don't have a dragon pit, of course, but . . . I do have the means and resources to build one," he coos, confusing Rhaenyra until he overplays his hand. "I'd do anything for my queen . . . or lady wife." Upon hearing those words, the princess suddenly gets an imaginary phone call she simply has to take and hastily peaces out.

House of the DragonJefferson Hall as Jason Lannister and Milly Alcock as Rhaenyra Targaryen in "House of the Dragon" (Photo Courtesy of HBO)

Jason has the money, see. But at this point in history, the Lannister line is short on power, evident in Jason's complete lack of that certain je ne sais quoi people characterize as game.

This is not the same as the life-sized multidimensional chess match type of game referenced in the other show's title, but the aura and swagger one projects without effort when walking through a room. Ser Criston Cole (Fabien Frankel) has game to spare that he isn't aware of originating from the quiet power earned by skill, courage and competence. That makes him leagues more potentially attractive to Rhaenyra than any golden lion.

Jason Lannister has wealth while being poor in the way of spiritual boons, including self-awareness. He's so full of himself that he doesn't understand his offer to House Targaryen of strength, and a golden trinket, in exchange for Rhaenyra's hand is an insult. What team with multiple dragons needs strength?

Apparently this show doesn't. Its giant-sized ratings and early second season renewal mark "House of the Dragon" as a success, although the story is still cooking at a very low temperature. There seem to be many people who are watching closely but aren't quite sure why.

Some of their wait-and-see ennui may be due to the show's introduction of characters we know only by surname without knowing their personalities. If we're more drawn to Daemon Targaryen, for example, that might have less to do with the wider audience's familiarity with Matt Smith, than his character behaving in a way we've come to expect of his family's name. Rhaenyra, meanwhile, presents the regal face we may have hoped Daenerys would live up to.

Either feels more like an extension of the Targaryens we expect than King Viserys, a loving man who prefers his and his family's happiness over the realm's stability. Viserys is, you know, a swell guy. But if and when he goes the way of Ned Stark, whether by natural causes or force, I doubt the audience will miss him.

Jason and Tyland may offer something this show needs ... which is a touch of comedy.

These Lannisters, on the other hand, add something to the cocktail because they're not the men the future generation may have expected them to be. Hall, who briefly appeared as Ser Hugh in "Game of Thrones," excels in playing up Jason's terminal arrogance while also dropping hints, through Tyland, of where the family's diplomatic skill comes from.

"Tyland is . . . frightfully dull, gods love him," Jason purrs. That doesn't mean he's ignorant; we see him attempting to counsel the king about the severity of the threat to Westeros' shipping routes posed by the Free City alliance called Triarchy.

Tyland's blessed with brains but he does not have the king's ear, or enough of pull to be taken seriously.

The Lannisters we came to know over nearly a decade's worth of "Game of Thrones" are never presented as uniformly likable . . . save for Tyrion, maybe. But their arrogance was backed by a hefty surplus of wealth guaranteed and a certain genius regarding how to seize and hold power.

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Introducing Jason and Tyland may offer something this show needs that "Game of Thrones" took a while to find, which is a touch of comedy. Jason's efforts to purchase favor from the king are as hilarious as his twin's political impotence should be infuriating, provided we empathize with the grave wrongs the king is doing to Lord Corlys Velaryon (Steve Toussaint) and his people.

We don't know enough about House Velaryon or its sons and daughters to care that much yet, frankly. But one recognizes the irony in seeing another pair of Lannister twins so in love with themselves that they can't see beyond each other's gaze. The difference in this pairing is that one is blessed with nothing but cunning while the other has nothing between his ears but shallow confidence.

If you know anything about how compound interest works, the Lannisters' rise from a small, loud voice and a rich house of little renown to a central player in the realm's survival in the space of two centuries is completely understandable. "Fire & Blood" explains the steps in their rise but we can't necessarily count on the series' writers to closely follow the same plot as the book.

We can make a few guesses related to the way the show introduces of Jason and Tyland, and how Hall plays them, purely by knowing their type's scent, just like Rhaenyra seems to. Between one twin's pompousness and the other's sense of politics, Hall plays them as men intent upon elevating their station the old-fashioned way: by sidling up to anyone they can step on to rise higher, and robbing the realm blind. Those who have game, play to win. Those who don't, cheat.

New episodes of "House of the Dragon" air Sundays at 9 p.m. on HBO and stream on HBO Max.


By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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